Authors: Maggie Johnson & Jackson McFadden
For our Inclusion in Neuroscience topic of the week, our lab watched part of a webinar (How We Talk About Adolescence Matters) hosted by the Society for Research on Adolescence, and we reviewed handouts created by the UCLA Center for the Developing Adolescent. We learned that little changes in the ways we speak about adolescence can make a big difference. Adolescents tend to be viewed by society as unstable and impulsive because of the extreme biological and cognitive changes that occur during this developmental period – but this isn’t necessarily the case. Slightly tweaking the way we describe adolescents and their experiences can lead them to have a better self-image and more positive relationships. For example, are their developing minds a gateway into poor decisions or an opportunity to learn more information? The UCLA Center for the Developing Adolescent argues the latter.
Another example of this can be seen within the context of prevention psychology and the labeling of adolescents as “at risk.” Naturally, this phrase is used to describe individuals who, through a collection of criteria, exhibit higher risk for negative personal and health outcomes. Though the term describes to researchers and laypeople alike what circumstances these individuals may find themselves in, there is debate as to whether the terms “at-promise” or “at-potential” should substitute the term “at-risk.” It is argued that the label “at-risk” sets negative expectations and increases stigma while other terms emphasize an adolescent's strengths and potential.
In research settings specifically, emphasizing the positive aspects of adolescent brain development can greatly improve the nature of a study and increase the likelihood that the outcomes will benefit the lives of adolescents. Due to the current societal outlook on adolescents, some adults view adolescents as less reliable sources of information, because they are seen as simply an “in-between” stage of life. Of course, this is not true and can cause adolescents to feel overlooked. This problem is reflected in school as well, such as when teachers dismiss some of the feelings of adolescents as unimportant and simply a “stage.” This leads to bonds not being formed between adults and adolescents and limits the emotional connections they can create with others.
It is important to constantly evaluate how we as researchers refer to the individuals whom we seek to help. Little phrases or descriptors that may be used reflexively have the potential to reinforce negative perceptions of the groups that they are describing. By talking about adolescents (in a positive light), listening to what they say, and understanding how they would like to be viewed, we can advocate for their proper image in society and in research.